If you’re deep enough in to video games to read NeoGAF even passively, you know that there has been beef brewing between Video game Press and the consumer. The reasons for this reach far and wide, but the general consensus from my perspective seems to be that a lot of people in the videogame press have been doing it for so long they’ve sort of forgotten what it’s like to be a consumer, especially a consumer on a budget. As such, certain members in the videogame press are more forgiving of pricing woes that have typically plagued this last generation of gaming hardware, and when the subject of absurd pricing is rallied against, the response from the press has generally been to label these people as spoiled children that need to just “stop whining”. A few like to hide behind the excuse of “vote with your dollars”, which has not particularly worked well when you consider the state of Season Pass DLC and the attempted vilification of the Used Games market. There’s a line in the perennial classic Tommy Boy that I feel is a pretty good counterpoint to the notion of voting with your dollars:
Tommy: I’m sorry about your car, but don’t call me worthless. I’m trying my best. I’m not my dad!
Richard Hayden: You’re right! You’re your dad! He could sell a ketchup Popsicle to a woman in white gloves!
The line pertains to people that can sell anyone anything even if it’s irresponsible for them to buy it. And you better believe that all of the big corporations try to employ marketers like that, making the idea of “voting with your dollars” fruitless. Because even if you’re smart enough to avoid buying so-called “coin doublers” for today’s games, there is a dedicated campaign to convince others that it is a necessary purchase. So in the end you have a bunch of people who are slowly falling out of touch on why everybody is so angry about the state of gaming because for the last 5 or 10 or even 20 years every videogame they’ve ever had was either provided to them gratis or considered a business expense. “It’s okay if I go out and on a whim spend $400 on Skylanders toys because that’s what my job is.” And on some level I don’t blame them - I’m sure they’re not consciously letting it happen, and some actively try and fight back against it. But it’s still a growing problem.
The latest and greatest example is the reveal of the XBOX ONE, which was at best met with indifference and at worst, total revulsion. Here is a videogame console trying to fix a problem that to most consumers doesn’t actually exist - we want to pay less for today’s games, not more (re: “voting with your dollars”), and so used video games have kind of risen up and given birth to a thriving second-hand market. The Xbox One wants to put an end to that, more than likely demanding that we spend full retail on everything - even games we borrow from friends. It is a plainly anti-consumer practice hiding behind notions that internet connectivity is “the future”. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. And you have people in the games press trying to spin this as a positive thing, with such lovely headlines like “You Don’t Hate the Xbox One, You’re Just Jealous”. But the one I want to touch on today is one by Ben Kuchera of the Penny-Arcade Report titled “The Xbox One will kill used games and control second-hand sales, and that’s great news (Really!)”
As if you couldn’t tell from the title, the article assumes that the used games industry is the cause of the problem and not a response to a greater issue at hand, and I really don’t think that’s the case at all.
[Xbox One’s internet licensing system] is good news for a few reasons. The first is that piracy will likely be reduced. If the system phones home every so often to check on your licenses, and there is no way to play a game without that title being authenticated and a license being active, piracy becomes harder. You’ll never be able to stop pirates, not entirely, but if you can make the act of pirating games non-trivial the incidence of piracy will drop. This is a good thing for everyone except those who want to play games for free.
This is the first thing I have to take issue with. Maybe I’m just blind to it, but piracy on the Xbox 360 never seemed like a significant problem to me. That’s not to say it does not happen, of course, but getting an Xbox 360 that can play pirated games involves a process more complex than most people want to deal with. I would assume that 15% or less of all Xbox 360 owners have the means to play pirated material. While I’m sure nobody would argue that less piracy is a bad thing, this was not a rampant epidemic that needs drastic measures in order to be stopped. Compared to other hardware manufacturers, Microsoft already had piracy under control better than the competition did. Beefing up security is a little unnecessary.
The next thing is that the used-game market all but disappears. GameStop may not be able to aggressively hawk used games for $5 less than the new price to customers under these new controls, which is great if you’re a developer or publisher. Once that secondary market is removed you can suddenly profit from every copy of your game sold, and as profit margins rise it’s possible we’ll see prices drop. Some stodgy publishers will likely stay with the $60 model, but they’re dead companies walking already. The smart companies will see this opportunity to play with pricing and see what works and what doesn’t.
This is putting a lot of faith in to companies that probably don’t deserve it. I can find no better example than to chart the course of Epic Games this generation: they set the stage with the original Gears of War, railing against Microsoft’s policies regarding free DLC. Epic had, in the past, been known for providing huge content packs for Unreal Tournament completely for free, and suddenly Microsoft was demanding that they charge money for them. They met in the middle, and the first Gears of War DLC pack went the Halo 2 route: pay for early access, or wait until it becomes free months later. By Gears of War 2, the “pay for early access” concept fell by the wayside, as the game received an additional 19 new multiplayer maps, all of which were only available to those who purchased them. When it came time for Gears of War 3, the generous Epic Games from 2007 had been completely extinguished - hundreds of dollars in worthless skins were up for purchase, with a whole special marketplace built exclusively for it. Gears of War Judgement took it a step further, with an option on the main menu constantly reminding you that for a few extra bucks, you could accelerate their awful EXP treadmill and unlock items in the game faster. This is to say nothing of Microsoft themselves, which up until two months ago dared to ask $30 for the “Games On Demand” version of Halo 3, a seven year old game. That $30 purchase did not include DLC, which drove the price of the game up past $45 - only $15 shy of what it cost when it was brand new. Finally, as of around March, the game has been reduced to $20.
While you could say that these are responses to the Used Game market, I on the other hand see it a different way: Microsoft has dipped their toe in to Steam’s pool, with a crazy christmas sale that let me buy the Games For Windows version of Age of Empires 3 for the low low price of only $0.10. I also picked up Viva Pinata for a dollar (see: this blog). Since then, further sales on Xbox Live and Games For Windows have been decidedly mediocre, and Microsoft in general seems to have learned one very important, key lesson: in a store like Wal-mart, discounts are often necessary in order to get rid of worthless, old products so that newer, better ones can occupy that limited shelf space. In a digital marketplace, there is no such thing as “limited shelf space”. Content lists on the Xbox Marketplace can go on for hundreds, if not thousands of entries. And it makes sense, too, when you consider just how bad Microsoft has been at making it easier to find content - they’re perfectly fine showing you a “shelf” that may as well stretch in to infinity. In a way, though, that’s what shopping online is becoming - Steam, which may have single-handedly saved the PC as a platform, is almost as difficult to browse as the Xbox Marketplace once you get past the featured content on the front page, and there probably isn’t going to be a good way to solve that problem without straight-up removing games from the service. After all, it’s not Steam’s fault there’s 232 games listed under the “Action” genre, and adding finer detail sub-genres isn’t going to make things any easier to the untrained eye.
It’s a nice wish to think that game prices would come down with the elimination of the Used Games market, but this is also coming from a company that wanted you to pay $2 for a pack of JPEG thumbnails they tried to call “Gamerpics”.
These aren’t crazy ideas. You can’t sell your games on Steam, nor can you buy “used” Steam games. The same with iTunes. And e-books, with some exceptions. So selling content that can’t be resold or purchased used isn’t weird, it’s becoming the norm. What’s innovative is that Microsoft may offer a way for you to get credit back for licenses you no longer use.
Now, this is important, because on some level, he’s correct: Once you redeem a game on Steam and add it to your account, you can’t sell it. Nor can you sell iTunes music, or stuff on Kindle. But on some level that doesn’t matter, because Steam, iTunes, and Kindle all deal with things that are inexpensive. The vast majority of the 280 games I own on Steam were either purchased for under $20, or were gifted to me by others (more than likely because they were also under $20). Individual songs on iTunes retail for a dollar or less, and eBooks are similarly cheap - a Barnes & Noble eBook reader I was given just a few months ago came pre-installed with more than 200 literary classics. An Xbox 360 game, on the other hand, starts at $60 for the basic version, up to $100-$150+ for so-called the “collectors edition”, and until the birth of the Season Pass, that $150 CE could possibly involve another $20-$50 in future downloadable content. This didn’t start out as a response to the burgeoning Used Game market, it was the cause.
Right from the word “Go” on this generation, you were hearing developers talk about increased production costs and how they could recoup their unsustainable business model. The “$60 and up” price tag was their solution. In response to this, and in response to the state of the economy, many consumers began to look for cheaper means of entertainment. Gamestop was more than happy to pick up the slack. With their plans foiled, game publishers have attempted to vilify these kinds of actions instead of identifying the real problem from within themselves.
The Xbox One isn’t an exciting prospect for the future, it’s Microsoft elevating the war on used games to the next level of DEFCON - a war that isn’t being fought for the consumers, it’s being fought for gluttonous developers who want to glue motion capture dots to a dog or hire the London Symphony Orchestra to perform for their game or spend a hundred million dollars on a World of Warcraft Clone that is only notable for having a lot of voice acting attached to it. As smaller, independent games are proving, that kind of stuff doesn’t actually matter as much as you would like to think it does, just so long as the game is fun and engaging. Did Mojang spend a hundred million dollars just so Kiefer Sutherland could lend his voice to Minecraft? No, but they certainly could spend that much on their next product, given how much they’ve sold.
Chances are, they won’t.
The existence of the Used Games market isn’t my problem, it’s my solution. If the game industry wants to stop the Used Game market from existing, twisting a consumer’s arm isn’t the way to go about doing it. Publishers could be fighting the Used Game market RIGHT NOW, by lowering prices on games. They aren’t doing that, and clearly have no intention to start. Steam and iTunes thwarted piracy by making the act of buying their content as cheap and as painless as possible. Microsoft is just putting up more walls.
I can only hope that the Xbox One won’t kill used games, and it won’t control second-hand sales, because if it did, that certainly wouldn’t be great news (Really.)